The term “rock star” is thrown about in many venues to describe those on a spectacular, often glamorous upward spiral. Of course it doesn’t actually mean the person of note is a rock star, they just come off like one.
Well, Charles Smith of K Vintners, Magnificent Wine Company and, most recently, Charles Smith Wines: The Modernist Project, is fitting of that description. He sports long tresses of tight curls and dark shades reminiscent of guitarist Slash. For 10 years in his former life, the northern Californian native managed a Scandinavian rock band. That alone would put him in close proximity to rock stardom.
Smith’s Randall Graham-like rise to the top of wine world stardom culminated in 2009 when Food & Wine magazine voted him their Wine Maker of the Year. Like Graham — who achieved mass market appeal with his provocative and funny labels with Bonny Doon — Smith also used similar tactics to his gain. House Wine, his popular flagship wine, brought consumers his brand of black-and-white, no-nonsense appeal, while building a label easily recognized and destined to become a mainstay. His other wines — Kung Fu Girl, Velvet Devil, Eve, Boy and The Creator — displayed a lusty, sinful, tempting yet accessible product. We all want a little rock ‘n’ roll in our daily lives.
Back in 2003, I read a New York Times feature on the wines of Washington state, with the gist being that with that state’s rocky soils and Mediterranean climate, they would be equal in quality to France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape within 15 years. Given that prediction, it’s no coincidence that along with Smith’s top wine maker award in 2009, another Washington winery, Columbia Crest, and their 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, was chosen Wine of the Year from Wine Spectator magazine in their annual Top 100 issue.
Smith’s rise to wine maker of the year in 2009 no doubt came from his coup d’etat of reaching a very prolific milestone in modern, domestic wine making: His 2006 crown-adorned-labeled Royal Street Washington State syrah received 100 points from Wine Enthusiast magazine. Critic Robert Parker, ever the creator, progenitor and keeper of this phenomenon, also dug deep and tossed in 99. For the record, the scores given to the ‘06 (and ‘07) Royal Street are the highest ever for any Washington wine. Furthermore, in the two decades history of these point ratings, Parker has only given out seven perfect scores for domestic wines, going to producers like Alban, Bryant, Dalla Valle, Paul Hobbs, Schrader, Screaming Eagle and Shafer. Those are some pretty heavy names. And heavy describes Smith’s efforts, both in “whoa, that’s heavy, dude” and “those wines are heavy, as in massive, dark and powerful.” Paul Gregutt, a northwest wine writer for 35 years and known expert on Washington wines, describes the ‘06 Royal Street as having “rich scents of purple fruits, smoked meat, cedar, pencil lead and moist earth that proclaim a wine with genuine gravitas.”
Smith is an adept interpreter of his own landscape, his wines, and of the consumer. He produces modern, drinkable wines packed with power and concentration. Rocky soils and low yields produce black juice with controlled vigor. Exclusive rights to the hallowed Cayuse vineyard add the magic of terroir to this everyman’s classic wine. The Royal Street is concentrated and complex, with a knockout nose and a long, long, long finish. The blackness in this, and all his wines, is undeniable. Pencilly, leady, graphite astringency challenges the palate, gums and sides of mouth to come along, like a rock star might ask you back stage for a drink.
While Smith’s Modernist Project aims to provide us with (extraordinary) everyday wines that we can drink right now, the Royal Street syrah is said to have the aging power of 20 years or more. Whatever the case, he says, “It’s just booze — drink it!” I will and did do just that. And you should too.
Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Redstone. Correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.